Is There a Limit to What We Should Know?

07/10/2012 10:27 am ET | Updated Sep 09, 2012

By contributing writer Rebecca Brudner. Originally published in KidSpirit Magazine's Science and Spirit issue.

On Sept. 10, 2008, scientists near the border of France and Switzerland turned on a huge particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Among other things, the LHC was created to simulate what conditions in the universe may have been like just seconds after it began, at least according to people who agree with the Big Bang theory of creation. This flipping of the switch, however, was met with great controversy in some parts of the world. Many people were worried that the event would have catastrophic effects -- maybe even lead to the end of life on the planet Earth. And so the question arises: Is there a limit to what we can, or should, know?

There are many different ways to try to answer this question, just as there are many different ways to approach the exploration of the universe. Some people may consider such exploration a sacred act, perhaps one fit only for the gods. Others may consider the desire to explore nothing more than a natural way to find out more about life itself. As a result, the question causes some tension between scientific goals and religious beliefs.

It cannot credibly be denied that much good has come from scientific exploration. The discovery of penicillin, for example, has greatly reduced the incidence of bacterial diseases and has increased the survival rate of surgery patients. Man's desire to walk on the moon led to all sorts of technological advances, from the development of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, which helps doctors detect many medical problems, to improved athletic shoes and freeze-dried food. In turn, the pursuit of these and other technologies has led to many extremely useful and fundamental inventions such as personal computers and cell phones, which have greatly improved our ability to communicate and work together.

But in achieving such results, scientific discovery has also unearthed numerous problems, some with serious moral implications. For example, in August 1945 the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing about 80,000 people. While arguably bringing an end to World War II and perhaps saving more lives, the bomb itself was the most devastating weapon the world had ever seen. And yet the development of the fission technology that made the bomb possible also opened the door to harnessing a world of energy that is not carbon-dependent.

The topic of genetic engineering is fraught with issues related to the conflict between scientific advancement and morality. The ability to create optimal genes for food, animals and possibly even humans has led scientists to discover many potentially beneficial applications, from the creation of vegetables that are protected from invasive insects without the use of harmful chemicals, to bananas which contain a vaccine for hepatitis. But many people do not think of genetic engineering as our right, and worry about the implications for the natural world. Pope Benedict XVI said recently in Dignitas Personae, a document that outlines the Roman Catholic Church's position on stem cell research and genetic engineering, that certain types of genetic engineering run counter to the truth that all human beings are equal. Others are concerned that by eliminating weaker genes we may be altering evolution and changing the course of life on earth.

These are real issues that will no doubt continue to evoke much disagreement. In fact, there are fundamental conflicts between some religious beliefs and science. It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the story of creation, for example, with Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. But just because these issues create conflict does not mean that we cannot continue to progress. It is possible to have faith or spirituality and still encourage scientific development. Spirituality and science can both be used in an ethical way.

Whatever position we take, one thing is clear: because we are human, we do not and may never really know all the answers. Yes, there are risks; everything we do has some risk. Perhaps exploring the microscopic and astronomic world might only be intended for a higher power; or our space vehicle might not withstand the atmosphere of another planet; or someone might do something destructive as a result of new scientific information. There is always uncertainty. But I believe that there is no point to living if not for learning, and learning cannot happen without risks. All we can do for now is keep learning and wondering.

Rebecca Brudner wrote this piece when she was a ninth grader. Last month, she graduated from Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn, New York. She likes theater, dance and music. She also likes writing and hanging out with her family, especially her older brother Sam.